Before last year, keyboardist Hailu Mergia may have more closely identified as a cab driver than the ex-leader of one of Ethiopia’s most popular bands. But when record label Awesome Tapes From Africa reissued his 1985 long-player Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument in June 2013, the cabbie’s music career sprang to its feet after a long doze.
When I interviewed Mergia last year, he told me hadn’t performed in public since 1992 or 1993. He spent six days a week driving a cab to and from Dulles airport. Not long after the reissue, the resident of Fort Washington, Maryland, was touring around the world and fetching reviews in the New York Times.
Mergia’s second wind is still blowing strong: On Oct. 14, Awesome Tapes From Africa plans to reissue Tche Belew, a 1977 instrumental LP by Mergia’s old group, Walias, otherwise known as Walias Band. Even casual followers of 1960s and 1970s Ethiopian music have probably heard one song from that album: the funky, hard-driving “Musicawi Silt,” one of the group’s most beloved tunes ever.
Today, Awesome Tapes From Africa released “Eti Gual Blenai,” a lesser-known cut from Tche Belew. With Mergia’s keys leading the charge, the band surges forward in spurts, then falls back into a simmering jam. It’s a time capsule from a fruitful period in Ethiopian music, one that was cut short by a new dictatorship that sent artists like Mergia fleeing to safer shores.
Listen to “Eti Gual Blenai” below.
Hailu Mergia plays the Atlas Performing Arts Center with Low Mentality Nov. 22.